Facts That Every Mechanic Needs to Know About Asbestos in Cars

Asbestos is a natural but dangerous mineral dating back to prehistoric times, but with significant popularity during the Industrial Age. The heat resistance, durability and fireproofing properties of asbestos made it necessary to many industries including automotive industry and manufacturing.

Though the recent asbestos ban is considered a significant step towards protection of upcoming workers in Canada, there lies a risk of asbestos exposure from imported as well as older products, particularly amongst mechanics and laborers working in the automotive industry. The asbestos ban will not have an impact immediately as mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused diseases take 2-3 decades to develop symptoms. Therefore, it may take at least two decades for the asbestos ban to show prominent results.

Automobile Mechanics Face Occupational Asbestos Exposure Risks

One of the greatest dangers and on-the-job hazard for auto mechanics is asbestos exposure. Mechanics are continually exposed to deadly asbestos while they work on various parts such as brakes, clutch facings, transmission pieces, hood linings, insulation gaskets, and car air-conditioning systems. Before the 1970s, asbestos was most commonly used in the automobile industry because it acted as insulation and offered heat resistance to mechanical components of a car that are subjected to high temperatures due to friction. However, the automobile parts undergo wear and tear, get damaged easily and hence require replacement, which can disturb the asbestos. Thus, mechanics working on older vehicles or parts are still exposed to asbestos and it is important to be aware of the fact that the effects of long-term exposure typically don’t show up for 10 to 50 years after initial exposure.

It is essential for modern day mechanics that perform repairs, which may disturb asbestos-containing automobile products, to be well-informed about the asbestos hazards associated with the occupation.

There are many different ways that auto mechanics can be exposed to asbestos.

  • replacing old parts that were created when asbestos was intensively used;
  • during repairing or removing components that have faced heavy wear and tear, asbestos dust may be released into the air. Auto-mechanics who repair brakes and clutches are being exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos without realizing the danger they face;
  • brake grinding – asbestos fibers may be released to the outside environment when the mechanism of brake or clutch pedals cause abrasion and friction or when malformation on brake components was sanded down;
  • disposal of asbestos waste – if asbestos is found, a specialist will suggest the materials be either encapsulated or completely removed from the work area.

At-home automobile mechanics working with old cars are also at risk of unknowingly inhaling asbestos because the home garage is generally not supplied with all the equipment present in repair shops, thus subjecting mechanics to a higher health risk.

In addition, the family members of mechanics are at risk of secondhand asbestos exposure as it is likely that airborne asbestos dust in repair shop gets carried home through mechanic’s clothes, shoes, skin, and hair.

Asbestos Containing Components in a Car

Older cars manufactured before the 1970s have asbestos in the following components:

Brakes – the most common components to contain asbestos, may contain the hazardous mineral in the brake linings, brake pads, brake housing, brake drums, brake shoes, brake dust, easily releasing asbestos dust just as sanding wood creates sawdust. All brake and clutch dust is potentially harmful, so it is recommended in all cases, to never blow dust out of brake drums or clutch housings with an airline. Instead, it is advisable to use properly designed drum cleaning equipment which prevents dust escaping is most required.

Clutches: Asbestos in clutches can get released during normal friction, in a similar way as in brakes.

Other notable car part made with asbestos:

  • Hood liners
  • Thread seal tape
  • Valve rings
  • Seals
  • Gaskets
  • Flywheels
  • Clutch disks
  • Pressure plates

Due to its excellent ability to protect and insulate against high heat and friction, asbestos was found in hundreds of other assorted automobile parts. Asbestos has been also found in numerous modern cars manufactured in Asia, especially China, where asbestos is still legal to use.

Harmful Effects of Asbestos Exposure

Despite all the efforts to use asbestos safely, workers still face dangers of exposure to the deadly mineral.

When automotive products containing asbestos are repaired or replaced, very thin fibers of asbestos can escape into the air. Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen with the naked eye, smelled or tasted, meaning individuals can be exposed without knowing it. The fibers tend to persist in the air long after a job is done and can spread approximately 75 feet from the work area, potentially exposing other mechanics and customers who enter the workroom. When inhaled or ingested, the toxic fibers may become lodged in the lining of the chest cavity, lungs, or abdominal cavity, causing inflammation and scarring. This can lead to several types of asbestos-related diseases including lung cancer, asbestosis, mesothelioma, pleural effusion, pleural plaques, thickening of the tissues around the lungs. Around 2,500 people die each year from mesothelioma – a rare cancer caused by asbestos – with the figure expected to reach its peak in 2020. Usually, the symptoms of asbestos-induced cancers take at least 30 years to develop.

How Mechanics Can Avoid Exposure to Harmful Asbestos Fibers

Today, automotive workers at service stations, repair shops, garages, and car dealerships need to be aware of asbestos-related hazards. Both automobile mechanics and their families are in considerable danger of asbestos exposure when they perform work in brakes, clutches, and gaskets and when asbestos fibers and dust are brought into the home on work clothes and shoes.

The following recommendations have been made in order to keep mechanics safe while working around asbestos:

  • When dusting off brakes and clutches, the use of a negative-pressure enclosure or HEPA vacuum is recommended.
  • To prevent asbestos dust from becoming airborne, always use a wet cleaning method with low-pressure spray equipment.
  • Always change into different clothes after work and never carry your work clothes home, so as to prevent second-hand asbestos exposure
  • Always wear an appropriate breathing mask and safety gear to protect yourself
  • Use of ready to install pre-ground parts is recommended. If at all you need to cut or grind a part, use lathe on low speeds to reduce dust levels.

Apart from taking these precautionary measures, it is important for mechanics to remain watchful of their health and consult a doctor if problems such as breathing difficulty and chest discomfort arise. If a mechanic who has worked around asbestos in the past has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illness, companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products can be held liable and a mesothelioma lawsuit can be filed against the company responsible.

About the author:

Gregory A. Cade, the author is the founder and principal attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. He is an Industrial Hygiene degree holder with a solid science background. He is a member of the Birmingham Bar Association, Alabama State Bar, and the District of Columbia Bar. He has represented thousands of victims of occupational/environmental asbestos exposure and other known toxins by fighting for their claim. His areas of practice include environmental/occupational law as well as Mesothelioma and Asbestos.